A British supreme court would sweep away the triple office of the Lord Chancellor. Derry Irvine should bow to the inevitableby John Morrison / August 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
The writing is on the wall-or on the Pugin wallpaper-for the medieval office of state occupied since 1997 by Lord Irvine. While Irvine has many critics, nobody is suggesting that he has done anything wrong. But the political and legal landscape has changed around him, partly as a result of his own actions.
There is a certain irony in the fact that one of the prime movers of Labour’s constitutional changes, including the 1998 Human Rights Act and the reform of the House of Lords, now appears to have prepared the groundwork for his own abolition. The ignominious collapse of Irvine’s proposals for a largely nominated second chamber has weakened his authority. The next stage of Lords reform will be in the hands of a 24-strong joint committee of both Houses where the government will have no overall majority and whose recommendations may go further than Irvine would like.
If the committee follows the blueprint laid down in a groundbreaking report last February by the Commons Public Administration Committee, it will opt for a mainly elected second chamber with between 300 and 350 members. Consensus in the Commons has moved away from Lord Wakeham’s Royal Commission proposal for a large part-time chamber to a much smaller, more professional body with full-time obligations. With as few as 60 or 70 seats to be allocated to non-party crossbenchers, it will be hard to find space for law lords, who have to remain politically inert. If they leave, then the Appellate Committee where they sit as a final appeal court will have to be replaced by an independent body. This was one of the arguments used recently by Lord Bingham, the senior law lord, when making the case for an independent supreme court in Britain.
Space in the Palace of Westminster is at a premium and there is a strong case for moving the law lords out of their cramped House of Lords corridor to a separate building. More importantly, the anomaly by which the highest appeal court…